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How a cultural anthropologist embraces finance

April 20, 2021, 9:00 AM UTC

Good morning,

Peter Drucker famously quipped that “culture eats strategy for breakfast.” Anita Ward, chief development officer at Salary Finance, a fintech company whose services employers can provide as a benefit to employees, shared this quote with me. “But in my world,” she adds, culture and strategy “just kind of hold hands and go out for cocktails.” 

I found Ward’s unusual path to the C-suite fascinating—both for the unique perspective she brings to the world of finance, and for how her own personal experience causes her to see things others might miss.

Growing up in Las Vegas, Ward says, her family was “economically fragile,” without a permanent home. But after a McDonald’s franchise owner hired Ward as a teen, he taught her about finance and “changed my life and changed the life trajectory of my family,” she says. Her manager showed her the “four tenets of conscious capitalism,” and shared with her best practices on how to manage her money while she was a high school student. He then made sure she had food to share with her family each night.

Anita Ward

Ward went on to earn a doctorate in cultural anthropology at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and then moved into finance. She spent more than 20 years as a corporate anthropologist, including holding the position of chief transformation officer and technology partner at JPMorgan Chase for eight years. She is also a former president of Operation HOPE, a global non-profit.

Mergers and acquisitions (M&A) is one particular area in which Ward says she’s worked closely with CFOsand one where her anthropology training has been particularly valuable.

“I would argue that long before environmental, social, and corporate governance and corporate social responsibility came along, there was applied anthropology,” Ward says. “Applied anthropologists deconstruct ethnocentrism by valuing other perspectives, [including] the way that people interact with the environment and different models of governance,” all of which can help companies “accept new perspectives [and] a more globalized view of the world,” she says. 

And the implications of that insight for finance professionals run deep. “If two cultures [involved in a merger] don’t match, if the value systems, power structures and the way that they communicate don’t match, then the effectiveness of the merger” may be reduced. “The CFOs that have been most successful in my world have understood people as much as they understand the numbers.” Deloitte echoed this idea in a widely circulated report a few years ago, writing that “participants in mergers are human and driven both by their shared culture and individual personalities,” according to their own research. “Cultural influences have the potential to be broad and far reaching.”

Ward began her role as chief development officer at Salary Finance in 2019, at the outset of the company’s expansion from the U.K. to the U.S. Her anthropologist skills have kicked in when, for example, she needed to explain to U.K. cohorts why the company needed to address financial inclusion differently for its U.S. model.

“Our markets are completely different,” Ward says. “So, when I talk [to my U.K. colleagues] about how we have to eliminate FICO scores, change our underwriting, and understand that, systemically, entire populations in the U.S. have been historically precluded from participating in the capital markets,” those have been “the most authentic conversations I’ve ever had,” she says. 

And like any good anthropologist, Ward excels at solving mysteries. She says she once had the task of finding out where a leak about an upcoming merger originated. (She doesn’t name the companies involved.) Through conversations with employees, formal interviews and analysis, she says, “What I learned was that an unusual group of individuals were getting together in an unusual situation, one we wouldn’t have thought about.” 

This leak happened shortly after smoking was prohibited inside of one of the companies’ buildings. “Individuals who were smokers from different departments, who normally would never cross paths, were getting together outside of the building,” Ward explains, and sharing the information within their various departments. 

“Understanding how communication flows was critical to solving that problem,” Ward says. That’s the kind of understanding that just about any C-suite executive could use more of.

See you tomorrow.

Sheryl Estrada


The role of CFOs within an organization has never been more important. Fortune is building a community for CFO leaders to engage with and learn from colleagues across industries. In partnership with Workday, our CFO Collaborative quarterly event series will focus on the evolving CFO role. Our first conversation will take place May 11 and address “The Critical Role of the CFO in the Post-pandemic World.” We will be joined by Adena Friedman, president and CEO, Nasdaq, and Allen Parker, CFO, Zillow. This is the moment for CFOs. Click here to register to attend.

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